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Do conservatives really want to ban only Muslim immigrants?

- December 15, 2015
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a town hall meeting in South Carolina this month. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

Riding a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment to the top of the Republican primary, Donald Trump recently narrowed his broader xenophobic rhetoric to something better understood as Islamophobia. He proposed a full ban on Muslim immigrants, refugees or otherwise — and two-thirds of registered Republicans agree with him. But do Republicans reject Muslim immigrants while — at the same time — welcome Christians? A survey experiment we conducted offers some unique evidence.

In a 2010 experiment, which is publicly available, we provided ironclad conditions of anonymity and allowed a representative sample of the U.S. population to express their opposition to citizenship for legal Christian and Muslim immigrants to the United States. Obviously there is no legal barrier to citizenship for these groups, but we wanted to see what people say when free of potential pressure to moderate their opinions.

Our approach, called a list experiment, was so focused on anonymity that we cannot ever know how any given participant in our study responded. Instead, with the help of some simple mathematics, we can extract the proportion of the total population opposed to citizenship for Christian and Muslim immigrants. We’ll call this implicit opposition. We also asked another random sample to express their opposition directly with no absolute guarantee of permanent anonymity. We’ll call that explicit opposition.

When we looked at the differences between people’s explicit and implicit opinion, distinguishing the self-identified conservative respondents from the liberals with moderates in between. We had previously explored attitudes toward Christian and Muslim immigrants for the general U.S. population, but what we found when we considered political orientation surprised us.

Explicit opposition looked a lot like Donald Trump suggests in that conservatives are more opposed to Muslim than Christian immigrants. However, with permanent anonymity guaranteed, a different picture emerged. Conservatives implicitly opposed Muslim and Christian immigrants to a somewhat similar extent, certainly well within the margin of error. Why? Because, relative to moderates and liberals, conservatives significantly and substantially masked their opposition to citizenship for Christian immigrants, but not for Muslims.

Liberals and moderates hide their opposition, as well, but the degree of masking is largest among conservatives and most striking given recent public statements by leading Republican candidates. The reason for this has a lot to do with what is considered acceptable to say out loud, called social desirability bias.

Opposition to Citizenship for Christian and Muslim immigrants by Political Orientation

In this climate of unprecedented Islamophobia, conservatives feel it’s okay to denounce an entire religious faith without exception. And although conservatives offer a more hospitable response to Christian immigrants only when apprehensive that they might be overheard, there is little to no evidence that Christian immigrants are truly seen as distinct or, moreover, relatively welcome.

For those that want to keep out anyone not born in America regardless of their contribution, religion, culture or need, Donald Trump and possibly Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) are their candidates. Nobody even comes close to imagining a future with such a tightly closed border.

However, for those who think that conservatives in America are picking and choosing the immigrants that fit their notion of America, we suggest you take a closer look. There is clear evidence that the idea of conservatives’ relative moderate stances toward Christian immigrants masks old-fashioned, decades-old bigotry from which few beyond the narrow base they have cultivated would be immune.

Mathew J. Creighton is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Amaney Jamal is the Edwards S. Sanford professor of politics at Princeton University.